Wealthy Corinth, wicked and luxuriant, occupying the high ground on the isthmus between Attica and the Peloponnese... The city’s name is Greek for adorned, and, in the first and second centuries of the common era, the place was famous for the gratuitous ornament dripping from the facades of its temples and public buildings. Here, the so-called Corinthian order of column was invented, marble capitals writhing with wreathes of carved acanthus – an order of architecture that other Greeks thought vulgar and did not adopt, but which the Romans, always ready to be impressed by the mere appearance of things, embraced with enthusiasm. Roman temples and fora are exuberant with Corinthian-order columns courtesy of its namesake city.
The isthmus of Corinth is a mere ligament of rocky bluff stitching the mainland to the peninsula. Greece is part of the middle east and war is the rule in that neighborhood. Accordingly, the city itself occupies the high crest of the ridge as it extends between the seas and embeds itself in the Peloponnesian peninsula. This is a defensible place, with deep wells, a city on a hill set against the backdrop of the vast barren boulder of the Akro-Korinthus, a spire of naked stone at the city’s back door, hovering over the sparkling bays with their three harbors. The bays are deeply incised, bringing the sea into rocky niches on both Saronian and the Corinthan shores. Steep winding roads lead up from the harbors to the city on the heights. Between bay and city gates, there was a kind of GI strip – pawn shops, fast food places, taverns, brothels and “hot sheet” motels lining the highway. In Paul’s time, a ship tram with hoists and massive levers hauled smaller vessels up and over the isthmus on rails made from thousands of polished logs. Bigger vessels, too large for the tram, rest at anchor in the harbor. The sea glitters. In Greece, the sea always glitters except when it is roused to fury by the winter storms.
The city is mercantile, expensive, cynical. A temple to Poseidon clings to a cliff overlooking the water – in a sea-faring city, it is wise to propitiate the God of the Oceans. Higher up, there are vast temples to Aphrodite, the Phoenician Athene, and Melqart, also known as Baal, the God that invented Tyrian purple dye. The temples smell of blood and incense and their compounds are crammed with chryselephantine-gilded statues and sacred prostitutes with eyes encircled by black nebula of kohl; they are pale creatures of the night, gliding through the shadows. The ring of a theater sacred to Dionysus makes an alcove in a hillside. The city’s mercantile district is acrid with the stink of vinegar used to dye fabric – from its inception as a Phoenician sea-port, Corinth has been famous for exercise of the dyer’s trade. There is a big synagogue and a Jewish neighborhood where Hebrew is spoken with koine Greek accent – Hellenized Jews with rambling mansions around courtyards where there are olive trees and statues of famous athletes and courtesans. Beyond the city’s walls, on the steep inclines and talus fields climbing to the stony dome of the Acro-Korinthus, there is a necropolis with cypress and ancient tumulus-mounds and a silent cubist village of stone sarcophagi, some spiked with phallic-shaped pillars, others tumble-down with tops dislodged like high, carved marble tanks from which horses and mules might drink, stone sepulchers carved with all the havoc and riot of the ancient gods, bearded men and naked women copulating, drinking, scenes of warfare and love, with the sculpted image of the deceased staring out uneasily from atop the torso of Dionysus or Juno or Hercules. A shadow slinks through the wild foliage among the neglected tombs – it is a wild dog, or, perhaps, a jackal. Higher up, where the hunter’s trails lead, the views are spectacular: the city and its harbors is resplendent, tints of gold and bronze, the rich purple and red that the dyers brew coloring pennants, the fleet, white-sailed ships at anchor in the harbor and, on the rocky spine of the isthmus, in Paul’s time, workmen swarming around excavations where the Caesar has decreed that a ship-canal be cut from sea to shining sea. Behind the Acro-Korinthus is the wilderness where there are bears and where, nightly, wolves sing and, perhaps, a last, lone lion roams the stony defiles.
I came to Corinth one morning. We were on a bus and had come up from Athens, passing through the dingy suburbs with their rusting shipyards and refineries, stopping and starting on a highway jammed with heavy trucks. It was a bright day and the sea, which was always beneath us on our left side, glittered. Some pretty Byzantine churches with their small domes studded the cliff-tops and there were gardens in those places where black-robed monks were strolling. At Eleusis, where the famous Mysteries sacred to Persephone and Demeter were celebrated, tattered-looking concrete highrises stood overlooking marshes where a refinery belched fire and smoke up into the pale blue sky.
Farther afield from Athens, the city thinned and the suburbs gave way to gated communities occupying the rocky hills cupping small bays, expensive homes made from pale concrete hidden among the green trees and gardens. At Salamis, where Darius wept to see his fleet destroyed, the villas of the super-wealthy were embedded in the cliffs above private coves, jetties extending out to yachts in the sea and groves of flame-shaped cypress marking the hidden entrances to these estates.
The isthmus of Corinth is about ninety minutes drive by bus from Athens. The band of high stony land is only a quarter-mile wide. Today, it is cut by the grey gash of the modern ship canal, two or three-hundred feet deep, a narrow channel shadowed by the high and sheer stone walls. There are a couple of locks. One of the seas is lower than the other – I can’t recall which-- and a couple of vessels are slowly making their way through that elongated quarry-like canyon.
There is a truck stop adjacent to the steel highway bridge over the ship canal. The bus stops there for the toilets and so the tourists can take pictures of the deep, sheer-walled canal. In the truck stop, you can buy baklava and Greek candies made with sesame seed and honey. The wild peaks and gorges of the Peloponnese loom ahead, like the mountains around Tucson set down in a sparkling sea. A sign points the way toward the bleak spire of the Akro-Korinthus and the ancient city. Tourists don’t go up there much, because there is nothing really to see. A few stone steps are cut into a hillside and there are some badly battered and looted sarcophagi. All that remains of mighty, wicked Corinth are seven columns, part of the Roman forum, and, curiously enough, built according to the Doric order.
Paul planned to write a “severe” letter to Corinth. The severest and most wrathful letter of all is Time.